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Celebrating African Women History Makers

Join us as we introduce you to four of the countless powerful and celebrated African Female figures from history and contemporary times. Join us in celebrating Yaa Asantewaa, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Sahle-Work Zewde, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. 

wHO IS Yaa Asantewaa?

Leader of the War of “The Golden Stool” and Queen-Mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire (circa. 1840-1921)

An official birthdate for Yaa Asantewaa varies, but several sources cite around 1840.  She was born in Besease, Central Ghana as a member of Asona royalty from the Besease clan in Central Ghana and was of the Edweso stool line. Her brother Kwasi Afrane was enthroned as the ruler of Edweso. Yaa Asantewaa married Owusu Kwabena—one of the grandsons of Osei Yaw Akoto, the seventh King of Asante who reigned from 1824 till 1834. She was later appointed the Queen Mother of Ejisu by her brother, Edwesohene (King of Edweso) Kwasi Afrane. 


Queen Mothers sometimes hold as much influence as the King himself, who is usually the son or grandson of the Queen Mother. Some Queen Mothers assisted their Kings in developing public policy or even served as a proxy in the absence of the King. Women, most particularly, the Queen Mother played an important role as a gatekeeper of the Golden Stool.

The Stool is made of gold, stands 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide. It was never allowed to touch the ground and was considered so sacred that no one was allowed to sit on it. It usually occupied its own throne next to the Asantehene (king).

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Image of Yaa Asantewaa (c) Wiki Commons

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Asante Golden Stool, Sika dwa kofi    (c) Wiki Commons

In Asante culture, there are stools occupied by chiefs or district rulers and there is the Golden Stool which is the most sacred object in Asante culture. It is believed that the Golden stool houses the soul of the Ashanti nation. The stool is so important to the Asante that the unity of the kingdom is believed to depend on the safety of the Golden Stool. According to folklore, the stool descended from heaven in a cloud of white dust and bestowed to Osei Tutu—the pioneer Asantehene (King of Asante) around the late 1600s.


Overtime there were negotiations with and battles against the British for reclamation of land and independence. As a result of such, in the late 1800’s the Asantehene and Asante leadership (including Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson; her brother, King of Edweso, had died previously) were arrested by the British and exiled, first to Sierra Leone and later, to the Seychelles Island. On March 28, 1900 Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa waged the last Ashanti war in defiance against the British, defense of their king and the demand of the Golden Stool. The war is known as “The War of Golden Stool” or Yaa Asantewaa’s War.” Some of the remaining local chiefs struggled to agree on a military solution and suggested conceding to British rule. Yaa Asantewaa was said to have responded to them in these words:

“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opoku Ware I, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to the Chief of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.”

Yaa Asantewaa’s words influenced the chiefs to follow her. The 6-month battle led to the death of more than 2,000 Ashanti and 1,000 British and Allied troops.  Yaa Asantewaa was captured by the British in 1901 and exiled to the Seychelles where she died in 1921, but the British never captured the Golden Stool. Her contribution to the independence struggle of the Asante confederacy against the British played a key role to the nationalist agitations of the early 20th century that led to Ghana being the first independent Sub‐​Saharan African country in the post‐​colonial era (March 1957). This was an inspiration to other countries to seek liberation and 17 African countries gained independence in 1960.


wHO IS Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti ?

Educator, Freedom Fighter, Feminist  (1900-1978)

Any fan of Afrobeat music would be familiar with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as the mother of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti, known as the “Father of Afrobeat,” whose life was portrayed in the 2010 Tony Award winning Broadway musical, “Fela!” However, the fruit did not fall far from the tree. Fela’s activism and courage was motivated by his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an educator, courageous anti-colonial freedom fighter, and African women’s rights champion who literally devoted her life to the struggle for freedom and human rights.

Funmilayo Ransome (born Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas) was born October 25th, 1900 in Abeokuta, Ogun State, southwestern Nigeria. She attended Abeokuta Grammar School, a Christian missionary school, where she was the first female student to do so. As an adult she would later teach there. In 1919 she attended Wincham Hall School for Girls in Cheshire, England and upon receiving her teaching credentials, returned to Nigeria in 1922. She decided to drop her birth names Frances and Abigail and be known by just her third name, Funmilayo (later after the death of her husband both she and her son Fela changed their last name to Anikulapo-Kuti. Anikulapo is a Yoruba word roughly translating to “warrior who carries powerful protection” or “he who carries death in his pouch”).

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Image of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (c) Wiki Commons

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Image of Fela Kuti (left) and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (right) (c) Wiki Commons

It did not take long after her return from England for her to become associated with the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Nigerian Union of Students, West African Students’ Union, and Nigerian Youth Movement- all very important anti-colonial educational movements in Nigeria and Africa. She became devoted to the fight to expand women’s access to education and political representation. She organized literacy classes for women in the 1920s and founded a nursery school in the 1930s. In 1925, she married Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister, an educator, human rights activist, and co-founder of the Nigerian Teachers Union (NUT). It was Nigeria’s first multi-ethnic and nationalist association. The two worked together towards ending colonialism in Nigeria.

In 1944 Funmilayo Ransome Kuti founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club, initially a civic and charitable group of mostly Western-educated Christian women. The club gradually took more of a political and feminist orientation. Thus in 1944 the name changed to Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and the club began expanding membership to women vendors in Abeokuta’s open-air markets, who were mostly impoverished, illiterate, and exploited by colonial authorities. The name change better reflected the women’s commitment to defending their political, social, and economic rights. Out of the AWU the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) was established. Funmilayo Ransome fought tirelessly against unfair taxes levied on small traders (predominantly women), water rate taxes and taxes imposed upon girls as young as age 15 (employed or unemployed), whereby taxes were not imposed upon boys until age 18. She also fought for provisions for medical and educational facilities for women. Her leadership led to her having active roles in politics, particularly in the pre-independence constitutional negotiations of 1946.

Her courage and dedication were unwavering as it spread beyond Nigeria to other African countries as resentment and opposition began to build. An article published by the Nigerian Tribune on February 11, 1950, stated: “It is gratifying to note that there is deep resentment among the Egba men of this dangerous ambition of their women. They and they alone can stop it; and it is necessary that they stop it, not only because of the loss of prestige in allowing their women to overwhelm them.”  Other similar articles and expressions continued. She was arrested several times but somehow never jailed. In 1958, the Nigerian government accused her of having Communist leanings and her passport was taken--- but she continued to fight until the end.

On February 18, 1977, approximately 1,000 soldiers stormed a compound in Lagos belonging to her famous son, Fela Anikulapo- Kuti who had become a very outspoken critic of Nigeria’s military government and expressed his views and commitment to righting the wrongs of his country via his music. 76-year-old Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second-story window during the raid. She never recovered from the injuries sustained from the fall and died on April 1978.

Other Notable Achievements 

  • First Nigerian women to drive a car and ride a motorcycle

  •  Nigeria's first representative at a women's international conference (in USSR in 1963)

  • Founder of the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigerian Students Union

  •  The University of Ibadan awarded an honorary doctorate in law in 1968

  • Declared Winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, 1970


wHO IS Sahle-Work Zewde ?

1st Woman President of Ethiopia
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Image of Sahle-Work Zewde (c) Wiki Commons

On October 25, 2018, Sahle-Work Zewde made history when she was elected Ethiopia’s first woman president by members of Ethiopia’s Federal Parliamentary Assembly.

Sahle-Work Zewde is regarded as a seasoned diplomat, and she is fluent in her native tongue, Amharic as well as English, and French. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Empire (now Ethiopia). She attended  Lycée Guebre-Mariam, French Community School and graduated from the University of Montpellier, France  where she received a degree in natural sciences. Post-graduation she returned home to Ethiopia and landed a position as Public Relations Officer in the Public Relations Department at the Ministry of Education. This followed with commencing diplomatic service. Her early missions took her to the francophone region where she served in Senegal and was authorized to represent Ethiopia in Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, and Guinea (1989 – 1993). Sahle-Work Zewde was only  the second women appointed  to serve as Ethiopia's ambassador to Senegal (1989-1993), Djibouti (1993-2002), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc in East Africa. She served as Ethiopia’s Ambassador to France, Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with official recognition to represent Ethiopia in Tunisia and Morocco (2002 to 2006).

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Image of Sahle-Work Zewde (c) Wiki Commons

Her career continued to spiral e.g., Director-General of the UN Office in Nairobi (UNON) in 2011- 2018 for which she was recognized by the UN for turning UNON into an important UN hub for East and Central Africa, also served as Special Representative to the African Union and Head of the UN Office to the African Union (UNOAU), and other leadership roles. Sahle-Work Zewde’s election as Ethiopia’s first woman President is considered well-earned and was well received by Ethiopians.

In a 9/2019 Voice of America interview in New York, the journalist asked Sahle-Work Zewde to tell a little about herself and her family. She replied…

“I don't know where to start. I grew up in a family of four girls. I'm the firstborn. But I had a very amazing family especially my father, who has always told us that there is nothing that a woman or a girl cannot do. So, this has been my motto all my life and in whatever I did, by the way, I was the first woman to do this, the first woman to do that, so I was daring. I was courageous and I had my self-esteem as well.”


wHO IS Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala ?

1st Woman and African Director-General of the World Trade Organization
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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (c) Wiki Commons

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala took office on March 1st, 2021 as the 1st African and 1st woman Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She is the seventh Director-General of the WTO. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala brings to this post years of experience as a Nigerian economist and international development expert. Her academic background includes graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, earning her PhD in regional economics and development from MIT, receiving honorary degrees from 15 universities worldwide and honorary doctorate degrees from several universities in Nigeria.

As for her early years, she was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria. Her father Chukwuka Okonjo was the king from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu. She attended Queen’s School in Enugu, Nigeria, St. Anne’s School in Molete.

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (c) Wiki Commons

Breaking barriers is not new to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She is the first woman to serve as both finance minister of Nigeria (July 15, 2003 to June 21, 2006 and from August 17, 2011 to May 29, 2015)  and also serve as the country’s foreign minister (June 21, 2006 to August 30, 2006). She is the founder of the Center for the Study of Economies of Africa, a development research think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria, and NOI-Polls, the first ever indigenous opinion-research organization in Nigeria.

In her recent years she served as Chair of the African Risk Capacity (2014 to 2020) and the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (2016 to 2020). In 2020 Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed African Union COVID-19 Special Envoy and World Health Organization COVID-19 Special Envoy. 

“a strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”

At her first address Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala  expressed appreciation for being selected and added,

What does the World Trade Organization Do?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably, and freely as possible.

 It operates a global system of trade rules, it acts as a forum for negotiating trade agreements, it settles trade disputes between its members, and it supports the needs of developing countries. Its primary purpose is to open trade for the benefit of all.

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